As FAIR has noted before (4/1/15, 3/8/16), how a story is framed is as important—if not more so—than the content of an article. Sixty percent of Americans don’t read past the headline and 60 percent of Americans share articles on social media without reading them. How a story is teed up to the reader is an essential element in how our media shape our understanding of the news.
One recent string of headlines on the conviction of two Georgia white supremacists over their racist menacing with a shotgun of an eight-year-old child’s party highlighted the extreme degree to which the media can fail in this capacity:
- Pair Gets 35 Years for Terrorizing Party with Confederate Flags (New York Daily News, 2/27/17)
- Two People Receive Huge Prison Sentences for Disrupting Child’s Birthday Party With Confederate Flag (Complex, 2/27/17)
- Prison Sentences for Confederate Flag Wavers Who Terrorized Child’s Party (San Jose Mercury News, 2/27/17)
- Confederate Flag Incident at Child’s Party Leads to Jail Time (US News, 2/27/17)
- Man, Woman Sentenced for Terrorizing Partygoers With Confederate Flag (Fox News, 2/27/17)
The casual media observer is led to believe that a couple received lengthy prison sentences for simply showing up to a child’s birthday party waving flags. As Douglas County, Georgia, District Attorney Brian Fortner said in a statement:
Many people tried to make the case about simply flying the Confederate battle flag. However, it wasn’t about that at all.
I would never allow someone to be prosecuted for exercising his or her First Amendment right to fly whatever flag they choose regardless of anyone’s personal feelings about it.
Instead, this case was about a group of people riding around our community, drinking alcohol, harassing and intimidating our citizens because of the color of their skin. Many people from all over this area were so alarmed by this behavior and fearful that something bad was going to happen that they called 911 to report it. Their fear proved to be warranted as members of the group got into a confrontation with local citizens having a birthday party at their home.
Members of the group pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at the victims. They used racial slurs and threatened to kill some of the party goers. They even threatened to kill children at the party…. All of the charges were based on threats to kill others and the pointing of the shotgun.
The key element of the crime—that the white supremacists’ taunts and slurs were backed up with the threat of immediate violence via a loaded shotgun—was often missing from headlines, buried in the text of the articles. One egregious offender, the New York Daily News, mentioned the fact that the perpetrators had a gun only once in paragraph four. Contrast this framing with how that paper covered the mass arrests of alleged “gang members” in April of last year (FAIR.org, 5/2/16), many of whom were accused of crimes by association:
Here, before any trial—let alone a conviction or sentencing—these black arrestees are summarily and expressly labeled as murderers and drug dealers, with their faces indelibly plastered on the internet as dangerous criminals—the core feature of their alleged crimes made clear for all to read.
Several other outlets covering the Georgia incident mentioned that there was a threat, but failed to note it was backed up with a weapon and not simply verbal in nature:
- Couple Sentenced for Disrupting Birthday Party With Confederate Flags, Making Threats (NBC4, 2/27/17)
- Prison for 2 Who Threatened Violence at Black Child’s Party (ABC News, 2/27/17)
- Georgia Couple Gets Prison for Racist Threats at Child’s Birthday Party (CNN, 2/27/17)
- US Confederate Flag Pair Jailed Over Threats to Georgia Black Family (BBC, 2/27/17)
The Washington Post (2/28/17) and Mic (2/28/17) deserve credit for clearly mentioning the use of a gun in their headlines—the Post’s “They Waved the Confederate Flag and a Shotgun at a Black Child’s Party. Now They’re Headed to Prison on Terrorism Charges” and Mic’s “Couple Sent to Prison for Harassing Black Child’s Party With Confederate Flags, Guns.”
When the story first broke in October 2015, the headlines were even worse, with reports downplaying the threat aspect altogether and treating the suspects as just a bunch of misunderstood Southern flag-wavers:
- Confederate Flag Supporters Indicted Under Georgia Terrorism Law (Fox News, 10/13/15)
- Group That Waved Confederate Flags Indicted (CNN, 10/13/15)
- Georgia Confederate Flag Supporters Face Terrorism Charges (Daily News, 10/12/15)
The rampage of the “flag supporters” happened only months after nine African-American churchgoers had been massacred in neighboring South Carolina. The perpetrator was a white supremacist who reportedly hoped to spark a race war—and who was repeatedly photographed waving a Confederate flag. The heavily covered story should have made it clear to journalists that the connection between Confederate flags and violent threats was very far from historical.
The fact that the Georgia couple waved Confederate flags helps illustrate the racist nature of their threat, but omitting that this threat was backed up by a live weapon makes the combined 35-year prison sentence seem absurdly excessive. In stark contrast to their black counterparts, the crimes of white suspects are, once again, rounded down to the least incriminating frame.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.